The Canoga Park football team is bustling through its first official practice, even if said practice started at 6:30 in the ante meridiem. Perhaps the coaching staff is doing its best to spare the players from the body- and will-sapping heat wave gripping the Southland and, in particular, the Valley. It may have also been a sly nod to perseverance, wanting to find out who really wants to play football and doesn’t care what hour practice starts.
Because this group of Hunters — especially the seniors — are expecting some good things to happen this season.
“I’m excited about this year,” said left tackle Jesus Almendarez, now playing his third year of varsity. “The energy is alive. I feel it.”
Canoga Park has seemed on the brink of a breakthrough the past couple of years. The team reached the City Section Division II championship game in 2012 (losing to San Fernando), which earned it an unexpected move into Division I. While performing credibly, the Hunters were nonetheless relieved to return to Division II last year, going 7-5 overall, and 5-1 in Valley Mission League, finishing second to Sylmar. The Hunters reached the quarterfinals of the playoffs, losing a hotly contested game to Jefferson High of Los Angeles, 47-45.
The Hunters believe they can go further this time around. The bulk of the starters are seniors who have played together two, even three seasons now. There has been a maturation from struggling against teams a notch or more higher on the talent level and learning to trust themselves and each other on the field, coupled with the optimism that it should be their turn to shine.
“We’re really senior rich this season,” Coach Ivan Moreno said. “It’s easier to get them focused on what needs to get done than a team with a lot of underclassmen, who might have other issues outside of football.
“This is a good group of guys. I think if we gel together as a unit, I think it could be awesome. I really do.”
Moreno adds that hard-earned experience and confidence is most important at the quarterback position. And in Andrew Dion, Moreno believes the Hunters have a seasoned quarterback that overcame injury (a broken collarbone as a sophomore), mastered the playbook, and has built up his body enough in the weight room (now weighing 180 pounds) to best handle an offense that expects the quarterback to pass and run.
“I think, in high school football it’s two questions,” Moreno said. “Question one is ‘how do you look this year,’ and the other question is ‘who’s your quarterback?’ If you can throw the ball a little bit, you’re gonna be okay. Plus we lost a guy (Deonte Perry, now at Fresno State) who was a dominant running back. So having a dual threat guy at quarterback helps us more, instead of everyone just keying on the running back.”
Dion, 17, a senior — whose brother Alexander was the Hunters’ 2012 quarterback — expects to produce better numbers than he did in 2015 when he passed for 1,779 yards and 17 touchdowns (against 10 interceptions) and ran for 140 yards and three touchdowns.
He also wants a more cohesive team in 2016.
“I think we need to come together and play as a team, not individuals. A lot of kids tend to play as individuals when they come from different teams,” said Dion, himself transferred from Rancho Bernardo in San Diego. “They tend to think they’re better than everyone because they come from a certain program. If we stay together, I think we’ll be fine.”
Almendarez, 16, a senior, agrees. “Last year I felt we really didn’t connect as much. I think this year we’re gonna connect a lot more. A lot of the seniors are going to be starting. And the ones who are starting, I feel like we’re all gonna get along and be there for each other. It feels like a veteran team.”
There is a transfer the Hunters are counting on. Eric Fields, 17, a senior, comes over from Hamilton High in Los Angeles. He can provide depth at running back and linebacker.
“He’s such a great, respectful young man,” Moreno said.
Fields was a member of Hamilton’s 2014 City Section Division II championship team. But he sounded as if he needed a change of scenery.
“I think [Canoga Park] has a good football program and better academics than Hamilton. So I think I’ll do better overall at this school,” Fields said.
He plans to do most of his talking on the field. But Fields has some advice for his new teammates about trying to win a title.
“You have to leave it all out on the field; you can’t take any plays off. And you can’t let your man beat you,” he said. “You have to compete with each other, and compete with everybody else to be the best. That’s all it takes.”
Moreno doesn’t mind if his players are thinking big. But he definitely wants the Hunters to take aim at winning the Valley Mission League, which they haven’t done since leaving the East Valley League in 2010.
“That’s our main focus. That’s the most important thing,” Moreno said.
The four-game nonleague schedule of Taft, Granada Hills, Birmingham and Hollywood should reveal Canoga Park’s strengths and flaws, and if the Hunters can indeed gel into a squad that will challenge for the Valley Mission title and beyond.
Moreno is looking for equal parts diligence and effort by the Hunters on both offense and defense, beginning on Aug. 26.
“We need to be really balanced,” he said. “Sometimes in the past we’ve not been balanced offensively, and that’s caused problems for us. Defensively we’ve replaced some good players. And last year we did better defensively than offensively.
“We’ve just got to have the offense balance it out better and it’ll be okay.”